Upon visiting a new city, I love to put on my running shoes and experience the city on foot. When given this opportunity on a recent trip to Cleveland, my instincts led me straight to the city’s Lake Erie waterfront. During my trek through the monumental downtown and past the impressive Brown’s stadium and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was surprisingly impressed by the city’s design and aesthetics…that is, until I reached the water.

The small nub of accessible waterfront stretches only a short distance and offers little more than a dead end with a sidewalk and barrier. Why is the Cleveland’s waterfront, an asset that most cities seize upon as their defining feature, such an underutilized amenity?

Much of the answer to this is that most of the waterfront is tied up as a port. This necessary outlet for Cleveland’s industrial-based economy is in obvious need of redevelopment, a project that a shrinking city is hesitant to even think about. In October 2009, the Kahr Real Estate group released a report entitled “Cleveland Waterfront Market Demand and Development Options” that reaches many conclusions that the city should be excited to hear.

The outlook of the report was much more optimistic than I expected, proclaiming that: “Cleveland can take on a successful, large-scale waterfront development based on three compelling reasons”:

  1. Cities around the world have successfully undertaken large-scale waterfront redevelopments while facing similar depressed local real estate and economic markets.
  2. Even under conservative assumptions about the future growth potential in the local economy, there is sufficient demand on the Port’s current waterfront site over the coming twenty-years to support development.
  3. A detailed financial analysis of potential development of the site based on results of a demand model reveals positive yields for the Port and other related stakeholders.

I had to ask myself, are they talking about the same Cleveland? Indeed they were. The report details a list of ten successful waterfront redevelopment projects in cities dealt a similar set of cards to Cleveland, including the US cities of Baltimore, NYC, Chicago and Pittsburgh. These projects all reconnected downtowns to waterfronts and catalyzed positive economic change – with repercussions across the city.

Suggested reorganization of Cleveland's port

I was actually able to meet Josh Kahr, of Kahr Real Estate, at the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in early November where he was a speaker on a discussion panel entitled “Post-industrial can mean regeneration…Especially on the Waterfront.” While the panel acknowledged the significant challenges of similar redevelopment efforts, overall it was a very upbeat presentation. This was especially striking considering the generally somber tone of the conference given the downturn’s stagnant effects on real estate. So, if the ULI thinks post-industrial waterfronts have potential in today’s economic climate – then perhaps Kahr’s report is something Cleveland should seriously consider.